Is the Church Dying

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Pleasant Hill AME

Good Morning

I recently heard about three Pastors that took the day off and went fishing.  As they were sitting in the boat, one Pastor said to the others, “You know, we don’t have anyone else to talk to, I think it would be good if we confessed to one another to unburden our souls.  We should confide with each other our struggle with sin.”

“Okay,” said the others. “but, you go first!”

So, the first Pastor said, “I have a terrible gambling problem.  I sneak off to Vegas sometimes and gamble church money.”

“O my, said the second.”  He paused and then continued “Well, I am a terrible cheater.  I cheat on my taxes and other finances and even misuse church money at times.”

“Oh my, said the third pastor.”  Then he got quiet.  The first pastor tells him it is his turn, but he waves him off and says, “Oh, you two don’t want to hear my sin.”

“You must!” declared the other two.

“Well, okay,” said the third as he started to grin.  “I am a terrible gossip, and I cannot wait to get off this boat!”

Wow – one Pastor that Gambles, one that Cheats, and another that’s a big Gossip – Good thing it’s only a joke, Right?!  But actually – we do hear about this from time to time, don’t we?  Those that are supposed to be exemplar Christians and community leaders that have public scandals. Indeed, we are all broken people!  Amen?

Let me tell you a true tale about a Pastor that demonstrated poor judgment.  Some of you may already know this story.  This fellow is what I would call a Super Christian.  This man was an ordained minister and was called by those that knew him “a fanatic.”  In fact, he every morning at 5am and he and about ten other men would gather for a daily ritual.  They would all pray, and then they would literally go through a list of twenty-two questions. They did this every day.  They would ask themselves things like:

Can I be trusted?

Does the Bible live in me?

Do I disobey God in anything?

Is Christ real to me?

This group was very serious and highly devout.   I am not saying there is anything wrong with this, I’m only trying to demonstrate how serious he was in his Christian practice.

Eventually, this minister he got appointed to a church in Savannah, Georgia.  As part of his charge, he would travel to some of the outlying towns.  But, because he was such a fanatic and demanded extremely rigid rules be followed, he was literally run out of several towns, (one time he was shot at).

Then something troubling happened; the minister fell in love with a woman in his congregation.  Unfortunately for him, she was already engaged.  He tried to be cautious, but it was evident to everyone that they were becoming an item.  This went on for quite a while, and he even tried to persuade her to dump the fiancé and marry him.  Remember now, this is the head minister of a large church in a large town.  Eventually, the fiancé got fed up and drug the woman off to another state at getting married.  When they came back to town, you know what that minster did?  He ostracized her in church and called her a bad Christian.  His mocking got so bad that the husband took him to court for defamation and abuse of church authority.   He was found guilty by the court.  But instead of sticking around he fled the country.

Wow – that’s quite the story.  Does it sound like someone who was living through the Faith of Christ – even though he’d asked himself that question every day?  Does anyone recognize the story I just told?  Well, the year that the minister skipped the country was 1737, and he went from Georgia back to England.  His name was John Wesley, and his “Holy Club” was known for being so methodical in their religious fervor – that they were called the Methodists!

By the time John Wesley returned to England he was beaten down and embarrassed.  It would be another year before he famously has his real conversion and says, ‘I felt my heart strangely warm.”   You see, John Wesley didn’t come to truly know Christ until long after he began his journey.

What about us?  Are we really Christians?  Do we bear the marks and carry the cross?  Jesus told his disciples – “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10:38).  What does this mean?  Many might be surprised to learn that many people do not really understand how to be a Christian.  They think they know.  They try to show that they know.  But they don’t know.

Sometimes it’s simply because they have not been exposed to someone that truly loves Christ.  When you meet someone that loves God with all their Heart, Mind, Strength and Soul – you know it.  And if you’re wise– you learn to let some of that rub off on you as well.  I’ve been doing some visiting with members of this congregation – and I met some people that truly carry Christ in their heart.  I like being near those folks.

When we look at the church the problem of folks not knowing how to be good Christians is not a new one. The Apostle Paul had a similar problem.  He was in a Roman prison far away from the churches he had established.  He wrote a letter to the Ephesians who were having an identity crisis.  Evidently, there were other evangelists teaching his new flock a message opposite to his and misrepresenting Jesus’s redemption and sacrifice.  Many of those new converts, were confused and being ridiculed by others – even family members.

Paul’s network of churches was in chaos, and people were confused about how they should act, and behave, and worship.  When we think about our modern age, this story sounds familiar?  Isn’t this what we’re observing in our own communities and all over the country.  People are confused about Christ or being ridiculed by others for what they believe.  We are being ushered into what is commonly known as the age of Post-Modernism.  This is a time in our history when secularists are teaching that everyone should be free to believe whatever they want to believe.  That only the individual can know the real truth that is right for them.  It’s all very sad.  Our society is unraveling. And it’s mostly happening with the young.

Now, with all this happening we also can see that Christian church attendance is plummeting.  I guess that makes sense.  I mean, if I am the only person that can judge what is good for me then why do I need the church?  Who is God anyway?  Sadly, this false teaching and thinking are growing and growing.  And at the same time, Mainline Protestant churches are closing by the thousands.

A study done by the author Donald House says this about the United Methodist Church; “By 2030, an estimated 30 percent of the denomination’s churches — or about 10,000 congregations — will have closed.”[1]  What is going to happen to this church in the next twelve years?  Will it be part of that ten-thousand?  Why do you think people have stopped coming to church?  I really would like to blame it on all the negative influences from in a growing secular world.  But how is it these dark and often evil forces are growing so strong.  Why are the churches not strong enough to hold off Satan’s work?  What is happening behind our doors that are failing to stop the decline?

I’d like to read you a short piece by Dr. Richard Krejcir who has a Ph.D. in Theology from Fuller Seminary. This is from an article he wrote titled Why Churches Fail: (I have shortened some of the sentences for clarity).  He says:

I tracked over 1,000 churches for over 10 years. I looked for the marks that caused people to leave. I found the top four reasons why a churchgoer leaves their church.

  1. 1. The number one reason why people stop coming to any given church, (This church) was reported by over 91% people… The most significant factor or the main reason being conflict and gossip!
  2. The number two reason that people leave a church is hypocrisy and judgmental attitude and actions of people. Seventy-eight percent (78%) of people who left a church stated they experienced [other] church people being judgmental to them, the [witnessed] hypocrisy, especially by pastors and leadership, or [experienced] hurt by church members.
  3. The number three reason why people leave a church is that they wonder, “where do I fit in?” They experience a lack of hospitality and concern or care from the leadership or people in general. Sixty-six percent (66%) reported that if people do not feel they belong, they leave.
  4. The number four reason why people leave a church is the unwillingness to deal with sin. This creates strife and factions in a church for which sixty-two percent (62%) of people reported to be the reason they left… The unwillingness to resolve conflict… and not seeking Christ first and foremost cause[s] the majority of conflicts between the people in the church and the pastor.

Let me repeat these four reasons a Church fails:

  1. Conflict with others in the church and Gossip
  2. Others in the church being judgmental and hypocritical
  3. Lack of hospitality and not feeling welcome
  4. The church does not address Sin and lacks the leadership to avoid conflict

To be a bit blunter – let me ask a delicate question.  Considering the four reasons people quit church – why have people stopped coming here?  Why would someone not want to sit in one of these pews?  Our first instinct is probably to say that our congregation is getting older and some members have moved away.  That would be fair. But If that is the case, why are there two churches growing like crazy in this town with people driving in from all over.

I am not critical of anyone here.  I am only asking the hard questions that need to be asked – out loud.   Last year I reached out to some people that stopped coming to my home church over on the other side of Franklin.  Would you know, every reason I listed earlier was among their complaints?  Let me give you one example. My wife’s friend started coming to church, with her three kids – then she stopped.  She later told my wife that not one person had ever once greeted her.  And that included during the passing of the peace!  You know what’s sad – there were only about twenty people in attendance. For her, it was the lack of hospitality.  Another member told me she got tired of being rudely dismissed anytime she brought up an idea.  I know that lady, and I’m fairly certain she presented some new ways to grow the church, and the leaders of the church were intimidated.

Change is hard – but do you know what’s easy – always doing what we do because that’s how we always did it. Using your bulletin insert, I’d like you to ponder of the four reasons I stated for why people stop attending church.  Ask yourselves, are any of these factors affecting this church.  However, regardless of what you discover, the larger picture is that it’s time for all Christian churches get back to the basics. We cannot let secularism interpret Christ for us.

Remember, I told you earlier, this was the problem Apostle Paul had that he describes in his letter to the Ephesians.   Most Scholars believe this letter was intended for all the churches in the area surrounding Ephesus.  That Paul wanted his letter to the “Ephesians” to be a refresher on how to be good “Christians.”  Specifically, Paul expected them to use his letter as a handbook – so to speak. It’s a guide for Pastors and leaders every bit as much as it is for the laity.  I would encourage you all to read all of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.  It contains 2442 words.  That is about the same length as my sermon this morning.   In my big study bible at home the paragraphs in Ephesians from 4:17 – 6:9 is labeled – Instructions for Christian Living.   At least read Ephesians from 4:17 – 6:9. Then, ask yourselves – am I living as a Christian as defined by one of Christ’s chosen Apostles.  Are we living as believers of Christ first, then Methodist second!

Now then, with that background, I want to discuss how the Methodist Church is trying to deal with the rapid decline in membership.  They have put together a program that allows churches to decide if they want to survive, or if they want to gracefully close their doors.  Someone described it as a hospice for churches.  It is called the Church Legacy Program.  Some of you have heard about it.  In fact, this church has chosen to participate in the legacy program.  A team here has identified some great ways to grow this church’s vitality.

I am happy to report that this church made a choice to thrive and survive.  You all want a legacy of life for this historic congregation.  But, here comes the… caveat!  If you don’t take this program seriously – this church is not going to thrive.  I know there are members here that are very busy with deploying the Legacy Program.  Yet, every person in this room should be asking about the program.  More importantly, every single person that calls themselves a member or constituent of this church should be asking How Can I Help?

You may or may not be aware that all Leadership Council/ Ad-Council meetings are open to everyone.  Everyone in the community.  But only members in this church gets a vote on church business.  Those meetings should be so crowded that you need overflow seating.  Anyone that wants to see this church survive should be there.  Even if you don’t want to speak or maybe you don’t like getting involved in these things.  It’s your church!    In most of the churches, I have served there are always the same handful of folks that do most all the work.  Change must come from the inside!  We can no longer keep doing things like we always do.  There is room for all of us to help grow the church.  I was visiting one of the older members of the charge, and she asked – tell me how I can help – I can still talk on the phone.  God bless her!

Please, do not hear my words as condescending.  I am simply trying to reinforce that the survival of this church will come from within this congregation.  No one else is coming to rescue you.  I’m it!  My role is to make sure you have everything you need, including my enthusiasm, and sweat equity.  Ten-thousand beautiful churches, many just like this one, are going to close by 2030.  We can’t let this be one of them!

The Apostle Paul gave us a handbook for Christian living, and the Legacy Program gives us a plan for survival.  We need to bring those two things together.  All the programs in the world can’t save any church if the folks inside are struggling.

I have discussed a lot this morning.  In closing let me recap.  Being a Genuine Christian is hard.  Even John Wesley stumbled before he got started.  True church vitality begins inside our doors with those genuine Christian traits we learn and foster as they flow out the door into our community.

We will soon be celebrating a Homecoming.  During this week I’d like you to take time and visualize all those people who will show up; the former members, and the absent member, and all the guests.  What kind of homecoming will they be attending?  Are they be coming to a celebration, or is it a dress rehearsal for a wake?

I close today with the words of the Apostle Paul.

(Ephesians 4:1-6).  “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

I keep reminding you that being a good and faithful Christian is hard.  We are all broken people.  Our only job is to get a little less broken each day.  If we do that, this church is going to be okay!

Amen

 

 

[1] https://www.faithandleadership.com/legacy-ministries-dying-churches-give-congregations-way-end-well

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